Roka Akor First Anniversary Party
I was invited to bring a friend to Roka Akor’s first anniversary party on Thursday, July 26. The party included a signature cocktail and passed hors d’oeuvres, as well as traditional Japanese drummers.
Other than the party, the night also offered complimentary robata grilled pork belly and $1 barrel sake for dinner guests. After living in California for 30-something years, I’ll admit to being snobbish about seafood in a place so far away from the ocean, and Japanese food so far away from Japan, but here was a prime opportunity for me to give Chicago a chance so I made a dinner reservation.
First, the party, which took place in Roka Akor’s bar, the Sake & Shochu Lounge. There were bar-height tables with comfortably upholstered stools as well as tables with chairs for the height averse. Just outside the lounge – through a wall of disappearing sliding doors – is a patio that provides fresh air and ample people-watching opportunities for the after-work crowd in River North.
We were served Roka Akor’s special anniversary drink, ichi, in champagne flutes. The drink was cherry vodka, cognac, agave nectar, lemon, and muddled strawberries finished with rosé prosecco. From the description I thought the drink would be cloyingly sweet, but I was wrong; the Ichi was nicely balanced and refreshing.
The hors d’oeuvres were plentiful. There were a variety of maki (rolls) including the vegan-friendly – and pretty – organic vegetable maki, and more traditional rolls with fish and fish roe.
The wagu beef dumplings, also called potstickers or gyoza, were quite good. The untraditional filling was very tender and moist, almost like the usual filling, pork, but with a nice beefy flavor.
I was quite surprised by how good the robata grilled potatoes were. I like sweet potatoes as much as the next person, but the robata treatment caramelized the potato chunks just right and rendered the usually tough skin pliable and tasty. Robata grilling uses charcoal that produces little smoke, so the potatoes weren’t overly smoky, just grilled and yummy.
The robata grilled scallops were delicious and so, so tender. Really, I barely had to chew, the scallops were cooked so perfectly.
And because every hors d’oeuvre course must have something fried, Roka Akor served fried squid. This was not the chewy calamari served sitting in a pool of oil to be eaten with a heavy sauce I’d had too many times before. It was much, much better. Individual portions were placed in paper cones – think snow cones – along with a small slice of lime for each server to squeeze over his portion, and there was nothing tough or rubbery about the squid at all. Nor was there anything greasy soaking through those paper cones. My friend and I loved the cones as well as the serving “platter,” a bowl of salt that allowed the cones to stand upright.
It was a lot of food, and a couple of drinks, and we still had dinner to eat. We were shown to our table, which was in a small dining area beyond the main dining room and robata bar. Our table was in an area much quieter than the main dining room, and because it was separated from the grill, much cooler (in temperature). The cool factor (in attitude) throughout the restaurant is high, with floor-to-ceiling windows and an eye to clean, modern design.
Before we had a chance to look at our menus, the complimentary robata grilled pork belly arrived. Just one bite of porky goodness, but it was enough. A whole dish would have been too rich; one bite was perfect.
Roka Akor’s menu has much more than the average Japanese restaurant (in my limited experience), no doubt due to Executive Chef Ce Bain’s wise supervision. Along with the usual sushi and tempura selections, there are hot appetizers and cold appetizers, but it would be a shame to eat at Roka Akor without having something from the robata grill. Roka Akor offers a variety of steaks, seafood, other meats including lamb, pork, and chicken, and vegetables cooked on the robata grill. Everything we’d had at the party was on the regular menu, so we decided to try even more of the offerings.
Along with the $1 anniversary sake, our food began to arrive. The edamame was so tender the outer pods of the soybeans could be eaten. They could have been eaten, but we didn’t eat them. Well, not many. The white miso soup had a nice fermented flavor I enjoy in a miso soup.
Then we heard drumming. Back in the Sake & Shochu Lounge, just inside the outdoor patio, traditional Japanese drummers were … yes, drumming. No lazy stool-sitters like drummers in rock bands, the drummers were standing, swinging their arms, and generally putting in quite a workout for our entertainment.
Because we both love tempura we had to order some. I find the quality of a Japanese restaurant’s tempura says a lot about the restaurant in general. The seasonal vegetable tempura was served with green sea salt and two dipping sauces, both of which complemented the vegetables nicely. I thought the presentation was fun: instead of boring slices of battered and fried vegetables, the denser pieces were cut so they fanned out like so many veggie fingers. Also, I’m easily amused. My friend thought the tempura was a bit too oily.
He had absolutely no complaints about the rock shrimp, however. These were little bits of fried shrimpy goodness sprinkled with ground wasabi peas and served with a sweet chili aioli. Delicious.
And because our eyes were clearly larger than our stomachs, we also ordered glazed pork ribs and crispy brussels sprouts, both from the robata grill. We had to have more from the robata grill.
My friend absolutely loved the crispy brussels sprouts topped with bonito flakes. I, too, thought they were tasty, but I was getting to the point where I simply could not process more food. Yes, they were good, but I’m sure they would have been better if I weren’t already so darn full.
So I stared at the glazed pork ribs with my own glazed expression. I had to at least try, and they were tender and delicious, but I simply could not eat anything else. We had the ribs packed to go. I ate the rest of the ribs cold the next day and they really were quite good. My dog thought the bones were a nice treat as well.
I stopped in the restroom on the way out. I’m of the opinion that a nice restaurant should have a nice restroom, and Roka Akor does not disappoint. It’s good to know the design didn’t stop because there’s no money to be made in the restroom. Even the floors in the restrooms were striking.
It’s easy to see and taste why Roka Akor has made it to the one year mark and beyond. There was nothing I ate or drank that was less than good, and most of it was great. Even without free drinks and appetizers, and drummers for entertainment, I will be happy to return to Roka Akor. This Californian was not only not disappointed, I was delighted.